Sedley Alley's Last-Minute Stay:

The state of Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in the early morning of June 28 after a series of last-ditch appeals, an unusual 11th hour stay of execution, and a strongly worded order vacating the stay from a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Given the Sixth Circuit’s public dissension in recent years, including several sharply worded opinions and allegations of improprieties in death penalty cases, I suspect this case would have received more attention had it not been overshadowed by the close of the Supreme Court’s term and several high-profile decisions.

Alley was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of Suzanne Collins, a 19-year-old Marine, whom he allegedly assaulted while jogging near Memphis, Tennessee. Although he initially confessed to the crime, years later he recanted his confession and claimed to be innocent. After his other appeals failed, Alley was granted a 15-day reprieve by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen so he could seek a court order for DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene. Alley’s effort to obtain DNA testing failed, and his execution was rescheduled for June 27.

As usually occurs in death penalty cases, Alley’s attorney’s sought last-minute stays, but were rejected by the Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court. Then, according to news reports, on the evening Alley was to be executed, his defense attorneys visited the home of Senior Circuit Judge Gilbert Merritt in a last ditch effort to halt Alley’s impending execution.

Less than two hours before Alley was due to die, Senior Judge Merritt issued a stay of execution. The “hasty order” was “half-typed and half-handwritten” according to the Associated Press, but it did the job – or so it seemed. Only two hours after the entry of Judge Merritt’s stay, the three-judge panel responsible for hearing Alley’s last appeal to the Sixth Circuit issued an order vacating the stay. The order, authored by Chief Judge Danny Boggs, had strong words for Merritt’s actions, suggesting the stay by “a single circuit judge” was unseemly. Alley’s claims had already been considered and rejected, so there was no basis for delaying the execution one more time. Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers used even stronger language, calling Merritt’s decision “highly irregular and in brazen violation of every rule that applies to this situation.”

Not knowing a tremendous amount about the procedural aspects of habeas corpus claims and death penalty appeals, I am curious whether Judge Merritt’s actions were, in fact, particularly “irregular” or unseemly. From the cases I have reviewed it did not seem that Judge Merritt was a partisan in the Sixth Circuit’s prior feuds over death penalty cases. Judge Merritt has publicly expressed concerns that the public’s desire for swift justice could result in the execution of innocents, and may well have been moved by the possibility that Alley was wrongly convicted. Whatever the reasons for the stay, it seems odd to me that a judge who had not been involved in the prior proceedings of this case would issue such a stay when stay requests had been repeatedly rejected by the Circuit, and stay applications to the Supreme Court were equally unavailing.

The application of the death penalty has divided the Sixth Circuit for some time, producing fiery opinions and allegations of judicial manipulation of cases to ensure given results. In one instance, a case was taken directly to en banc review, before the applicable three-judge panel could act. Cooey v. Bradshaw, 338 F.3d 615 (6th Cir. 2003). As a result, two senior judges assigned to the original panel were excluded from the case and a capital defendant’s claims were accepted by the narrowest of margins. In another, dissenting judges alleged procedural irregularities in an en banc decision to stay an execution. In re Byrd, 269 F.3d 578 (6th Cir. 2001); 269 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. 2001).

Some judges on the court have intimated that their colleagues allow their personal opposition to the death penalty influence their actions on the bench. Judge Boyce Martin, for instance, has written that he does not believe the death penalty, as currently administered, can comply with due process. While he has not sought to adopt this perspective in a court holding, he regularly votes to delay or overturn capital sentences. Other judges on the court, such as Judge Boggs and Judge Alice Batchelder, are clearly unsympathetic to innovative arguments against validly imposed death sentences. Their written opinions suggest there is not a tremendous amount of trust among the Circuit's judges on these issues. [Note: Judges Martin, Boggs and Batchelder also traded allegations of impropriety concerning the Sixth Circuit's handling of the Michigan affirmative action cases.]

Given the context, and the current “disquiet” over capital punishment on the Supreme Court I found this to be an interesting case – another example of drama on the Sixth Circuit. The information in the post comes from court opinions and published news reports (largely the AP and The Tennessean). I would appreciate additional perspective or information from readers who may be aware of relevant items I may have omitted.

UPDATE: Thanks to some of the commenters, here is a copy of Judge Merritt's order granting the stay; here is a copy of the order vacating the stay; and here is an article from the Nashville Post with some interesting details.

For those who want more legal background on the case, a search of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit's opinion database pulls up over one dozen opinions arising from Alley's conviction, including this unpublished opinion rejecting Alley's effort to obtain physical evidence for DNA testing, and this dissent from the denial en banc review concerning Alley's claim that lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.